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The Internet's Most Valuable Social Network Has Been There All Along

Forget Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Have you tried email?

Posted on July 9, 2013, at 1:34 p.m. ET

My email connections from the past five years.

Though we may not typically think of it that way, the creators of the MIT-based program Immersion are not wrong to call email "one of the original forms of social media." Social media has become shorthand for the ever-expanding circle of more instantaneous forms of internet-based interaction — Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and so on. Email, without accompanying "like" or "favorite" buttons or a constantly refreshing stream, can feel, by comparison, slow.

At the same time, for many people, there's something sacred about email — it's generally reserved for people we know well, real-life friends and family and colleagues — that Immersion's brightly colored graphs clearly display. Email is a world apart.

Immersion — which currently only works with Gmail accounts — asks for access to your email history and, after a few minutes, organizes it into a time-scaled graph, with a little circle for everyone you've ever emailed. (Names are attached, but you can remove them for privacy/screenshot purposes.) The above chart displays my email connections over the past five years — 4,254 emails total, which seems either surprisingly high or low, I can't decide.

What's most notable, though, is Immersion's representation — and, by extension, Gmail's representation — of who is important to me, and how it differs from what similar graphs of other social media sites would show. The blue, orange, and purple circles are biggest here, meaning they comprise more emails sent and received than other connections. All three colors are professional colleagues. The green group is friends, though the biggest of them is not who I would have expected. The connections Immersion draws between these people, semi-spookily, are mostly accurate, though not totally: Two of the three brown circles are my parents, and the third is a non-relative, a former editor I haven't contacted in years.


My email connections from the past year — green, red, and light blue area ll work. Royal blue and brown are friends, purple is family.

Immersion also shows that while email (at least mine, and I suspect many others') is more intimate than other social media, it is also, somehow, made less personal by its reservedness. It's an incomplete picture; few of the people I regularly interact with on Twitter, for example, appear on the charts, and when they do their circles are tiny and isolated. Of course (like they say on Twitter), YMMV. That's what makes it cool.

The charts also lend themselves to re-imagining email as, quite literally, a network — because we're typically interacting privately, with individuals or groups, we tend to think of email as less "connected" than other social media. But here too, there are some versions of the sharing conventions seen elsewhere on the web: blind copying is analogous to privatizing our Facebook timelines, and maybe forwarding someone's annoying email to someone else to gossip about it was just an earlier-era subtweet. Email may feel less public than other social networks — and to an extent it is — but it's still a connection service that puts you on a map with dozens of other people, some of whom you might not have realized were connected to each other too.

Tools like Immersion provide, if nothing else, an interesting (and potentially mortifying, or troubling, or relieving) way to look at the people who've made up one area of your internet life over the past five years. It is probably best, though, not to show it to anyone else. One of my best friends, with whom I Gchat every day, said, when I showed her my chart, "I can't believe my circle is this small."